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The Thin Man
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THE THIN MAN-The Essentials

SYNOPSIS

New York City residents Nick and Nora Charles are vacationing in California where Nick previously lived. The former detective still knows a number of people in town, and when one of his acquaintances, Clyde Wynant, mysteriously disappears, he is reluctantly drawn into the case by his own wife and the man's daughter. The Charleses have been living off Nora's considerable wealth since they wed, so Nick doesn't need to return to sleuthing. But Nora finds it exciting, and soon Nick is tracking down Wynant (the Thin Man of the title) who proves to be a murder victim. This brings him into contact with all sorts of unsavory characters who eventually wind up at the Charles's Christmas party where the guilty party is unmasked.

Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Screenplay: Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich, from the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editing: Robert J. Kern
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: William Axt
Cast: William Powell (Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (Nora Charles), Maureen O'Sullivan (Dorothy), Nat Pendleton (John Guild), Minna Gombell (Mimi Jorgenson), Porter Hall (MacCaulay).
BW-91m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.

Why THE THIN MAN is Essential

The Thin Man was adapted from a popular novel by the great mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, but the mystery around which the plot turns is relatively unimportant to the movie's focus and its enduring appeal. What makes the film so entertaining is not the unraveling of the murder but the movie's central relationship of Nora and Nick Charles, one that redefined the screen depiction of marriage. It also helped to set the tone and style of a new, then-emerging Hollywood genre - the screwball comedy.

MGM director W.S. ("Woody") Van Dyke was a big fan of detective novels - he'd even written a few himself. When he learned that the studio had the rights to Hammett's novel, The Thin Man, Van Dyke thought the story of private eye Nick Charles and his wife Nora would make a terrific film. He also knew exactly who should play Nick and Nora. He had just directed Manhattan Melodrama (1934), starring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy, and had been struck by the chemistry between Powell and Loy. The two had developed a bantering friendship, and their between-the-scenes repartee was charming and lighthearted. That was exactly what The Thin Man needed. MGM executives didn't agree. Both actors came with a lot of baggage, and studio bosses couldn't see them as the glamorous detective duo.

In the end Van Dyke had his way, and proved that he knew what he was doing. He instructed the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to play up Nick and Nora's affectionate banter in their script for The Thin Man, and to make the mystery secondary. That was easy enough for the Hacketts, whose own marriage and personal style was very Nick-and-Nora. And for Powell and Loy, it was a delight to play, from their first appearance in the film, with Nick instructing a bartender on the finer points of shaking a martini, and Nora making a grand comic entrance by falling on her face. The Thin Man was shot on a "B"-movie budget, very quickly -- accounts vary between 12 and 18 days. Not for nothing was Van Dyke dubbed "One-Take Woody."

It's impossible now to imagine anyone in the roles of Nora and Nick Charles but Myrna Loy and William Powell. Their on-screen chemistry was so dynamic that the public came to believe the two were married in real life. And thanks to Van Dyke's direction and the witty script, Powell and Loy created something fresh and new for the screen, a married couple who enjoy each other's company, unfettered by mundane responsibility or children (although, regrettably, they were saddled with a son later in the series). Prior to this, marriage in movies was usually depicted in one of two ways: either as the focus of domestic problems (financial or medical woes, infidelity, etc.) or as the "happy ending" to a romance, the final outcome of a story rather than its starting point. But Nick and Nora are already married at the start. They are young, attractive and healthy; rich enough not to worry about money (Nick is apparently quite content to live off his wife's wealth); and unsaddled by any charge except their dog. The alcohol also flows abundantly whenever Nick and Nora are together - it had only been two years since Prohibition - but it is never presented as a problem or something sinful but simply as the fuel for the wacky fun and snappy dialogue that transpires during the movie.

Certainly it's the little details Van Dyke and company create around Nick and Nora's domestic life that stick in the memory. Take the unconventional Christmas setting, Nora wrapped in a "stifling" fur coat too pretty to shed, Nick reclined on the couch shooting ornaments off the tree with a pop gun. Or watch them walking their dog down the street on Christmas Day. As Nick talks to the police about his current case, the couple pass by trees, light poles, fire hydrants, all barely noticed. Their dog, Asta, is out of frame, the only evidence of him is the leash Nora is holding. But as the mystery plot is discussed, what we end up watching is the way the Charles's forward gait is repeatedly interrupted, without comment or notice, by Asta stopping and pulling back on the leash. Nothing is made of it; certainly there's nothing inherently interesting about a dog doing his daily business. But this sort of causal off-handed detail about the couple's life is the hallmark of what a movie can do better than any other artistic medium.

Audiences adored The Thin Man, and so did critics. It was a huge hit, and turned around the careers of Powell and Loy. The film earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Five sequels followed, with Van Dyke directing three of them, After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941). The other two were produced after Van Dyke's death in 1943 and included The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), directed by Richard Thorpe, and Song of the Thin Man (1947), helmed by Edward Buzzell.

The Thin Man and its sequels also created another star - "Asta," the Charles's wire-haired terrier. It was a breed that hadn't been particularly popular in this country, but the "Thin Man" films changed all that, creating a national craze for wire-haired terriers. Asta was played by several dogs, but Myrna Loy later recalled that she and Powell were never allowed to make friends with any of them, because the dogs' trainer didn't want to break their concentration. In fact, Loy claimed that the first Asta, whose real name was "Skippy," bit her, "so our relationship was hardly idyllic."

by Rob Nixon & Margarita Landazuri

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